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Opposites Attract, and an Exhibition Opens

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Heatwaves in a Swamp was featured in the New York Times on October 7, 2009.  Read the article here.

Opposites Attract, and an Exhibition Opens

October 7, 2009

It’s hard to imagine two American artists more different than Robert Gober and Charles Burchfield. Mr. Gober is a New York sculptor who specializes in making people feel uneasy in the face of familiar objects, whether planting hairy, trouser-clad cast-wax reproductions of a man’s legs in a gallery wall or loading a sink with vaguely sexual imagery. Mr. Burchfield was a prolific 20th-century painter who worked almost exclusively in watercolors and made his name with American Scene painting — an earnest, realist art movement that flourished in the 1930s.

But as Mr. Gober was giving an early tour of “Heat Waves in a Swamp,” the new Burchfield retrospective that he organized for the Hammer Museum here, there was a moment when the two artists seemed intimately connected.

Mr. Gober had stopped in front of a pair of Burchfield landscapes, “The Coming of Spring” and “Two Ravines.” Both are dark, brooding watercolors from 1943 enlivened by frothy streams. And both, on closer inspection, consist of multiple panels of paper meticulously glued together. Burchfield, well into his career, took the radical step of not just revisiting earlier themes from his work but also literally reusing decades-old pictures. He would take one of his early watercolors and add painted strips of paper to all sides, a bit like a frame surrounding the original, to make a larger, more expansive painting.

Mr. Gober pointed out the barely visible seams in both paintings, while describing the artist as being on the brink of a midlife crisis. “He was turning 50, and he had received the kind of success — the kind of flattery and money — that makes it hard to reinvent yourself,” said Mr. Gober, who is 55 and knows something about success. “But he figured out an extraordinary way to do it.”

“My theory is that he wasn’t trying to reconnect with the images in his earlier paintings as much as with the experience of first making them,” he added. “I think he was stuck — and trying to find the inspiration he felt when he first made them.”

Then he spotted a bulging tree trunk in “Two Ravines,” an image that seems almost Goberesque in its frank sexual content. “It’s the only time I’ve seen a reference to male or female genitalia in Burchfield’s paintings,” Mr. Gober said. “So I think it’s significant to find such a phallic image in a painting of rebirth.”

According to the museum, this is the first time that these two paintings have been reunited since leaving the artist’s studio. (“Two Ravines” now belongs to the Hunter Museum of American Art in Chattanooga, Tenn.; “The Coming of Spring” comes from the Metropolitan Museum of Art.) It’s also the first time that either painting has been shown on the West Coast. The Hammer exhibition, which opened Oct. 4 and travels next year to the Burchfield Penney Art Center in Buffalo and then to the Whitney Museum of American Art in New York, proves unusual in one other respect: it is a rare example of an established artist undertaking the time-consuming, research-intensive job of organizing a historic artist’s retrospective.

A number of artists have guest-curated shows recently, typically for museums seeking to show their permanent collections in a new light. The Museum of Modern Art has invited artists including Vik Muniz to stage a show called “Artist’s Choice”; the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden tapped John Baldessari to plumb its storage facilities; and the Menil Collection invited Mr. Gober to rummage through its holdings. Most recently, the New Museum in New York announced that Jeff Koons would be sifting through the collection of the Greek billionaire (and Koons patron) Dakis Joannou for a future show.

But it’s unusual for an artist of Mr. Gober’s stature — he represented the United States at the Venice Biennale in 2001 and had a critically acclaimed retrospective at the Schaulager Basel in Switzerland two years ago — to suspend his own art-making long enough to organize an academically sound solo exhibition, complete with a scholarly catalog. And it was an unlikely subject for Mr. Gober, as he discovered while trying to secure loans for the show. “The funny thing is that if people were familiar with my work they tended not to be familiar with Burchfield,” he said. “If they knew Burchfield, they’ve never heard of me.”

Oddly enough, Mr. Gober says he is not especially obsessed with Burchfield. He said the idea for a show occurred to him only after he and his partner, the artist Donald Moffett, had the Hammer’s director, Ann Philbin, over for dinner in their East Village apartment last year. Ms. Philbin, who was a friend dating back to their days together in the protest group Act Up, spotted on a wall a small Burchfield drawing of a curtain blowing in a window — a work Mr. Gober said he had bought at an auction because “I liked the price — I think I paid $800.” They ended up talking about Burchfield’s legacy, which has been eclipsed by contemporaries like Edward Hopper and Milton Avery. Within a week, they were talking about a show.

“It wasn’t a burning desire of mine,” Mr. Gober said. “If a different museum director was at my house for dinner, I could be doing a Rosa Bonheur show,” he joked, referring to the 19th-century French animal painter, whose work he also owns.

But he said Ms. Philbin’s enthusiasm for Burchfield — she brought a show of his to the Drawing Center in New York in 1993 — got him thinking about “the fact that there has not been a full retrospective of the artist in 20 years and never one on the West Coast.”

“In fact, it’s surprising how many really smart people in the art world don’t know his work at all,” he added.

One reason is Burchfield’s medium. “Because of the fugitive nature of watercolors, many institutions can’t keep their Burchfield paintings on display,” explained Cynthia Burlingham, the Hammer curator who worked with Gober on the show. “Even in low light, the colors can fade or change.”

Another factor is that some Burchfield work from the ’20s and ’30s , like his Hopperesque street scenes, register today as rather conventional. But one effect of this exhibition, which features roughly 80 watercolors as well as journals, wallpaper designs, doodles and other ephemera spanning five decades, is to reveal an artist who was more wide-ranging and inventive than generally assumed. Even the catalog cover — a camouflage design that Burchfield made in 1918 during a stint in the Army — will come as a surprise to many.

Born in 1893 in Ashtabula Harbor, Ohio, and raised nearby in Salem, Burchfield attended the Cleveland School of Art, where his talents as a graphic artist were encouraged. Soon after graduation he put these drawing skills to use on a highly idiosyncratic project representing emotions through a system of semiabstract forms.

He called this visual dictionary “Conventions for Abstract Thoughts,” and the sentiments included “morbid brooding” (which resembles nothing so much as a stage curtain) and “fear” (which in one version looks like the fluke of a whale). It’s the first series visitors will encounter at the Hammer and provides a handy key, for those who like keys, to deciphering the emotional content of paintings to come.

And there were many paintings to come. By most estimates, he made over 200 paintings in 1917 alone: dramatic landscapes as well as local scenes featuring churches, houses and other small-town haunts that at their best vibrate with a van Gogh-like intensity, marked by vivid colors, bold brushwork and rhythmic visual patterning. It was such a feverish year that in 1930 MoMA’s founding director, Alfred H. Barr Jr., skipped over Burchfield’s American Scene paintings to show work from this early period.

At the Hammer, Mr. Gober has reunited 13 of the 27 works from the original MoMA show, which, he discovered through archival research, was the museum’s first show devoted to a single artist. Other early paintings like “The Coming of Spring” appear in expanded form toward the end of the show. Mr. Gober admits to having a soft spot for these “late, great” works, which are, as he wrote in the catalog, “imbued with visionary, apocalyptic and hallucinatory qualities” and managed to reprise “many of the painting ideas that he had developed as a young man.” Burchfield’s transformation, he added, produced “one of the rarest events in the life of any artist: great art in old age.”

While recent Burchfield exhibitions like “Ecstatic Light” at D. C. Moore Gallery in New York have also celebrated the late paintings, Mr. Gober has particular insight into “the arc of an artist’s life,” Ms. Philbin said. “He is asking questions about how and why artists make work and what happens in periods of stagnation, reinvigoration or other phases in an artist’s life.”

Over the course of multiple interviews, Mr. Gober repeatedly steered the conversation from his own art to that of his curatorial subject. Yet Ms. Philbin ventured to make one link, suggesting that the artists on occasion share a dark sensibility, like the curtain drawing that she spotted at Mr. Gober’s home. “This picture is a quiet scene, with no people, that is both perfectly banal and disquieting,” she said. “That’s absolutely Bob Gober and absolutely Charles Burchfield.”